Officials at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for Maryland are storing human bodies in a Baltimore parking garage amid a backlog of more than 200 autopsies awaiting completion.
WBALTV 11 News first reported Wednesday that the state medical examiner’s office’s autopsy backlog has become so large that they’ve run out of space in their morgue and have begun using a parking garage as an overflow field morgue. Officials have reportedly hung cardboard sheets from the ceiling to block people from seeing in.
The need for the overflow space reportedly comes as a result of staffing shortages at the medical examiner’s office as well as an increase in homicide, overdose and COVID-19 deaths.
The office has lost five examiners since 2019 and two more are set to retire this year, according to 11 News.
“As the staffing shortages have happened, there has also been an increase in autopsy caseloads,” Ann Wagner, the senior policy analyst for the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, told 11 News.
The backlog is continuing to grow daily. The Baltimore Banner reported the autopsy backlog could exceed 300 bodies by the end of the month.
“They’re storing bodies in a cooler in a parking garage. It’s a mess,” Patrick Moran, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), told the Baltimore Banner. AFSCME’s members include autopsy assistants, lab techs and forensic investigators with the office.
Local funeral directors have told the Baltimore Banner that the backlog is also worsening conditions for grieving families as funerals have had to be postponed. The state of the bodies is also a concern, as the publication reported a body refrigerated below 40 degrees can start to show signs of decomposition after just one week.
Dr. Victor Weedn, Maryland’s chief medical examiner, shared the concerns of families waiting for autopsies in an email obtained by the Baltimore Banner.
“This is just kind of like playing games with people’s lives,” Weedn wrote. “It’s keeping people from having closure.”
State lawmakers have begun to share their concerns about the backlog as well. During a budget hearing Wednesday, state lawmakers asked what is being done about the backlog and what help they may receive from the federal government.
“The Maryland Department of Emergency Management has submitted a request for an assessment for a potential deployment of resources,” Maryland Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan said. “That has just started.”
Weedn has also requested the help of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, a federal disaster emergency mortuary team that has participated in federal responses to disasters and attacks like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The state is also trying to recruit more staff, such as pathologists, for the medical examiner’s office.
“Pathologist salaries have increased by over 50% since prior to October 2020,” Chan said Wednesday.
Salaries for pathologists now range from $238,842 to $370,086 annually.